Reinventing British Manners

By Ben Hammersley, Editor at Large, Wired UK

When WIRED first approached IDEO, we were seeking a few bold ideas for a wider feature on how to upgrade government in Britain. We thought the design firm responsible for the Apple mouse, the Palm V and countless other products and services would creatively address such a wide brief without too much prompting. Perhaps they would give us ideas for education or health - they work in both fields in real life, after all, designing insulin pens for Eli Lilly, for example, and primary-school syllabuses for the Kellogg Foundation. Yet as we got to understand how the firm works, and became inspired by its approach to innovation, we had our own breakthrough idea. Why didn't IDEO create something unique for Wired readers - something new and useful?

Not a problem, said IDEO, we actually already have an idea of the problem we want to solve. Urban rage, they said. We would like to try to solve the problem of rage. The multidisciplinary team, which comprised Lydia Howland, Mike Albers and Ben Forman followed the classic IDEO pattern of immersion, synthesis, ideation and, finally, prototyping.

Their research took them in many directions: they met an anger-management therapist and a white-collar boxing coach; they undertook sessions of brainstorming with their colleagues; and Mike Albers took a four-day course that would qualify him to work as a nightclub bouncer. This preliminary work done, the team found that one of the major causes of urban rage was queuing. The traditional British skill of standing in line is a matter of pride to many urbanites, but the stresses caused by fellow citizens holding up the queue, jumping the queue, or simply being annoying nearby, were said to be enough to drive many of our sample interviewees crazy.

But the team couldn't re-engineer all of the shops and services in the UK in order to reduce all of their queues; nor could they resolve the problem of all shops and banks and post offices employing too few staff. But by changing the psychology of how we feel when we're queuing, the team thought, we can reduce the amount of stress that we have learnt to feel, and so reduce our rage when we're waiting. By queuing, they proposed, we should be able to do some form of good. Then the longer we queue, the better we can be made to feel about it.

They developed a teaser campaign to promote the strategy, with posters positioned wherever people are likely to be queuing or waiting: the bus stop, the post office, traffic black spots. It reads: "Queue Britain - the longer you queue, the better Britain gets!"

Visitors to a website address given on the poster and advertised in the media are invited to register for a Queue Britain card, which is then sent to them by post. Like a Tesco Clubcard, this is individual to the queue frequenter and allows them to earn Queue Minutes. And indeed it doesn't have to be a card - it could be anything that can hold a barcode. In addition to the card proposal, IDEO also produced a prototype key ring.
These Queue Minutes, the team posits, could be earned from any of the partners in a Queue Britain alliance. The member company, such as the Post Office, will then pledge to award Queue Minutes to all participating people who have had to queue in their stores. Reach the front of a queue, and the shop assistant will add some Minutes to your account. This might vary - you might perhaps get Minutes from the moment you enter the line, or only after a certain annoyance threshold has been reached; but either way, the longer you endure this inconvenience, the more Minutes you accrue. This is a good thing.

Minutes can also be earned in virtual queues, too; members of the Queue Britain alliance can advise their call-centre staff when it's appropriate to award Queue Minutes to those who have been kept on hold for a long time, or whenever the website has been down. But whichever way you earn the points, the clever aspect of the proposal happens here: once a cardholder has accrued more than a set number of Queue Minutes - and they can check their balance via the website - they can donate those Minutes to the charity of their choice.

So if you find that you've spent 15 hours in line in Tesco over the past few months - not an unlikely number - and if Tesco is a participating member of the Queue Britain alliance, then you can donate those Minutes to charity, and Tesco will fulfil those 15 hours either by making its staff available for community work, or by creating paid opportunities for public volunteers to help out. And now a few hours of your time spent standing in a queue is worth, say, a few hours of Tesco staff helping out at a soup kitchen.

The time you spend queuing, therefore, isn't wasted time any longer. The more you queue, the more opportunities you have to donate other people's time to your favourite cause. Keeping this in mind as you stand annoyed in the post office, the team believes, will go a long way towards reducing ambient levels of rage in the city.

Furthermore, this system makes the really annoying transgressions - queue-jumping - into something even more socially unacceptable. Jumping the queue, of course, means you are not earning Queue Minutes, and you are therefore actively choosing not to do good. Being a little rude is one matter, but actively choosing not to do good is quite another.
The side effects on the companies involved in such an alliance are also interesting. The corporate-social responsibility movement is ever-more powerful - and the larger companies with queue-forming habits are exactly the same companies that would most benefit from being seen to be doing something positive and beneficial within the so-called "third sector".

Of course, a company might decide to pay out Queue Minutes as a cheaper option than reducing its queues through employing more staff. But would anyone seriously mind if Tesco were to do nothing about the length of time that you had to wait in its lines, if you knew that the missing till operator was instead out doing something charitable?

This final product design from IDEO is not a device, nor a business, nor even a service. It's not really even a product as such. As an amalgam of an advertising campaign, a technological system, and a concept based around the psychologies of the individual, society at large and big companies, Queue Britain is an idea that exemplifies the "design thinking" that IDEO is helping to introduce into the mainstream. Designers are looking at solving the problems on an ever wider scale - from personal products, right up to focusing on changing wider society, and then the world.

Read the full article here... www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2009/12/features/reinventing-british-manners-the-post-it-way

November 2009